Is Salient the new Viral?

Do you know someone who seems to regularly say exactly what you’re thinking, but using better words? To me that’s (Jed Bartlet and) Martin Weigel. Good thing he has the good taste to voice his opinions before I do, so I can at least avoid the embarrassment. (Although that also implies that he’s either way more efficient than I am to find time for it while producing brilliant work, or he’s just as lazy but gets to those ideas faster than I do. Both scenarios are rather discouraging.)

Case in point, his list of “Words I hate” that I would sign with my own blood (except for strategists: I don’t like “planner” because it leads to an abundance of plans and a shortage of ideas), and his general disdain for Adland rhetoric.

That’s why I’ve been scratching my head over his two long posts about Differentiation v Saliency. He makes a great job of combining an extensive range of sources to make the argument that:

  1. Consumers are just not that into brands. Virtually any attempt to engage them in a relationship, join a conversation or expect them to respond to the intricacies of your brand are futile, delusional and egotistic. (Spot on!)
  2. Shopping metrics show that consumers are highly unloyal, purchasing from a basket of brands for each category, and disproportionately rewarding the market leader. Consumer segmentation models that distinguish between the Brand-X woman and the Brand-Y woman are a work of fiction.  (Can’t argue with that…)
  3. This is backed by research showing that consumers can’t differentiate between brands, across almost all brands and categories. Differences in brand attributes are overwhelmingly explained by scale. (Hmm….)
  4. Consequently, our efforts towards differentiation have been misplaced. If consumers don’t spend enough time in their purchase decisions, then there is no point explaining the differences between products. We should get out of the persuasion business. (Hmm hmm…)
  5. We should instead find creative ways to turn our generic, un-ownable products into something exciting and worth remembering. This is what it really takes to trigger a purchase. (Ouch…)

When I first read the articles I couldn’t reconcile how much I agreed with their initial points and how unconvinced I was by their conclusions. I thought it boiled down to a contradiction (Did we fail to create brand differentiation or did we succeed but it was proven worthless? You can’t have it both ways…), but there is more to it. So let’s complicate this:

Brands are not people, my friend

Let’s get the first two points out of the way: most normal people want to engage with other human beings, not with commercial abstractions.  They don’t want to own your brand, nor are they keen to join any conversation with it. Virtually all segmentation models produced by the corporate world are bull-s**t. End of story. I know it, you know it. Let’s move on.

Spot the difference

There’s a difference between saying that brands are undifferentiated and that most brands are undifferentiated. While it’s true that we have plenty of examples of interchangeable brands, we also know some that are wildly recognized as different, with research to back it up: Volkswagen v Chevrolet, Barclays v The Cooperative Bank, Innocent v Minute Maid, Jil Sander v D&G,  Singapore Airlines v American Airlines…

There’s more: there’s a difference between saying that “consumers don’t differentiate between brands” and that “according to research, consumers  don’t differentiate between brands”. The output of a research is only as good as its input. Most brand equity researchers test fundamental category attributes with very traditional questions, and what you get out of it is not very insightful. Take sportswear: if you run a traditional test on items such as “modern”, “athletic”, “successful” you probably get very similar results between Nike and Adidas, with differences explained by the relative size of the user base. But if you instead ask them who would win in a street fight, you get much more revealing results. I know because I asked.

Let’s face it: we’re really not that good

This is a point I feel very strong about. Martin looks at how central “differentiation” is in the marketing textbooks, and concludes that if we failed despite all our efforts, then it must be unattainable. I have a very different point of view: we’ve been rubbish. You only need to walk into virtually any meeting room of virtually any company in the past 40 years to see the same words written on virtually any brand identity model: how many banks are about “fulfilling dreams” and being “by your side”? How many mobile operators about “being better together”? How many posters have we seen with headlines such as “Capture life”? Or “Never miss [X]”? And how many “Inter-racial-urban-young-adults-raising-their-hands-at-a-gig”?

We should take a good look at ourselves as an industry and admit it: garbage in, garbage out.

Of course, some brands make the opposite mistake: in an effort for textbook hyper-differentiation, they look for the tiniest granular ownable property (2% more whatever-unpronounceable-ingredient) and expect that people will care. This is true, but we shouldn’t benchmark our strategies on this kind of rubbish. The quest for ultimate ownability should have been pronounced dead ever since the question “But can’t our competitors also claim X?” first received the answer: “Yes, but they’re not.” Let’s move on.

Let me entertain you (?)

The traditional Christmas cake in Italy is called “Panettone”. It’s a very simple product: a sweetbread filled with raisins and candied fruit that is mostly produced industrially and, to be perfectly honest, is not what you would call an unforgettable culinary experience. It’s mostly produced industrially, and it’s the kind of product you only think about once a year: every Italian family buys one for Christmas lunch or dinner, with an attitude that is more about ticking a box than anticipating a festive delight.

You can now understand the challenge that a friend of mine was faced with a few years ago, while working on a brief for a brand of Panettone that was going to spend the same budget of its 4-5 major competitors, who were targeting the same consumers with the same message (ie. “Yummie!). The fans of “saliency” would advocate saying pretty much whatever you want as long as it’s not repulsive (“we’re not in the message business”), but doing so in a compelling, exciting, memorable way. My friend did something different and, well, complicated things a bit. He bet on the hypothesis that even though Panettone is a tick-boxing purchase, it can be about more than taste: while everyone else claimed yummie, he put all his chips on “soft”. He believed that the weekend before Christmas shoppers would flock to supermarkets and, faced with a half dozen equally legitimate brands and similar packages that all claimed to taste good (who wouldn’t? and how can you believe it anyway?), they wouldn’t know where to turn to. He knew they’d want to buy something that their children wouldn’t complain about, and there was his answer: “soft.” Children like softer cakes more than harder ones. And not just that: old Panettone gets hard, so you can desume that fresh Panettone is soft; as for another non-negative, soft also makes it seem less likely to be dry.

Did he convey that in a memorable, compelling ad like the Cadbury Gorilla? Not really, as you can see below. But it was enough for Panettone Motta to achieve record sales that year. And the following. And the one after that.

What’s the big deal?

So why am I writing a ridiculously long post about something that was written months ago by a guy whose other opinions I agreed with before and since? Because I see a risk hidden behind that argument, the same I see in Dave Trott’s words advocating that being interesting is more important than being relevant. It’s not just that there is no silver bullet (but it’s always worth repeating that); it’s also that we fail to grasp the complexity of our job.

I believe that the single most important contribution a creative agency can make to a brand is making it distinctive. Not just distinctive among all the other distractions we’re exposed to today: I agree with that, but it’s not enough. We must also make it distinctive among the competing options that shoppers are forced to consider, especially when they’re frustrated about it.

No one  is happy about how electronics retailers are displaying tens of tens of TVs forming an endless black wall. But this is how things are, and we can’t pretend otherwise. We also can’t pretend that shoppers will walk into an electronics shop and not be shaken by such a wide choice, no matter how preeminent brand X was in their head before they walked in. “Sony Balls” was a great ad not just because it was memorable, but also because it gave shoppers a cognitive shortcut to navigate through that choice: “Colour”.

Martin Weigel recognizes this when he quotes Romanuik and Sharp (Conceptualizing and measuring brand salience, 2004) and their recommendation to consider a range of attributes associated with the brand in any measure of salience, but we should also be aware that this is not very different from what we’ve been trying to do for the past few decades. We simply haven’t done it very well, for many reasons.

If we instead celebrate “saliency” as a Copernican Revolution, the process of dumbing everything down that has been dooming our industry will more than likely turn it into a new buzzword like it did with “viral”, and we’ll soon hear clients asking us to give them something “salient” like they used to ask us for a “viral”: this terrifies me, because the quest for the “new exciting wonder” coupled with the unlimited creative possibilities of the digital age is more likely to produce the the most amazing collective waste of resources that Adland has ever seen than anything really valuable.

I’d rather do what we should have been doing, and do it well: investigate our product; explore what makes people tick; see if there’s a connection between the two; make it easy for them to find it; get them excited in the process, but not more than they’re willing to be.

If we do all this, and we do it well, we’ll make our brands salient. Chances are, we’ll make them viral, too.

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3 thoughts on “Is Salient the new Viral?

  1. Sean Peake says:

    Glad to see you pick up on the salience angle. Weigle got me into Ehrenberg, too. I did my little piece on it a while back (;postID=4905212547135105963) Haven’t written much for months, tho’. The industry is overrun with douchebags and digital charlatans

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  3. […] Q: You’ve mentioned that the single most important contribution an agency can make to a brand is to make it distinctive amongst the choices a shopper has to make. What distinct elements do you look for when hiring?Well, that point about differentiation applies to many brands and many industries, but not all. Our job is too broad to be captured in any one rule. […]

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